Two things prevented me from really exploring new releases of 2023: working on my own music and discovering the work of Brian Fennell, id est SYML.
My iPod Touch has a playlist of unreleased Observant Records tracks that at one point lasted 2 hours. I have an EP, a reissue and a number of singles ready to unleash over the next two years. So I’ve been working in my own monkey house for a while, which means I’m probably losing perspective on how good this work may be.
Back in 2019, SYML released his debut album and showed up on a number of my social media feeds. My reaction: Oh, he’s cute. When he showed up again in 2023, I decided to listen to The Day My Father Died. I’ve since gone back and listened to his back catalog and also the albums he recorded with the band Barcelona.
So it’s just been me and Brian Fennell for most of 2023.
SYML, The Day My Father Died
When I first put The Day My Father Died on the half-year list, I hadn’t yet explored SYML’s self-titled debut. Now that I have, I actually like that album a bit more, but it didn’t stop The Day My Father Died from consistently getting multiple plays on my media players. Fennell has a great voice, and he’s a great songwriter. But his songs are so well-suited for his voice, it’s hard to imagine someone else covering his work. Still, it makes for some engrossing listening.
My first play of the album was underwhelming, but I gave it another few spins, and before I knew it, the album had seeped into my consciousness. Nothing on this album stands out as a chart-topper, but in its entirety, Raven has a seductive quietude.
Eluvium, (whirring Marvels in) Consensus Reality
Eluvium albums tend to be more meditative, but this one goes for epic gestures. And it’s a welcome change.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Weathervanes
Jason Isbell is similar to Emmylou Harris in how they both don’t really make bad albums. But Weathervanes made me rethink just how much I liked the albums preceding it. Both The Nashville Sound and Reunions had reached the year-end favorite list, but Weathervanes has an emotional core about as raw and vulnerable as Southeastern, his breakthrough album that turned 10 in 2023. It’s probably his best album since Southeastern.
Everything But the Girl, Fuse
Do I like this album more than Walking Wounded, Amplified Heart or Temperamental? No. But Ben and Tracey reuniting is just the balm we need for the start of the 2020s.
Kesha, Gag Order
I love it when pop stars have genuine axes to grind, and Kesha comes out swinging.
Soundtrack, BLEACH: THE BLOOD WARFARE I
BLEACH: Thousand Year Blood War is the only scripted television show I watch, and I have been enjoying the conclusion of the BLEACH storyline immensely. A lot of the music on the soundtrack is familiar to anyone who’s watched the show for any length of time, but the stakes raised in the story means the score has to rise to the occasion. So real orchestra players come in where synthesizers held court, and Sagisu Shiro’s score gets more intense as a result.
Danish String Quartet, Prism V
Over the course of five albums, Danish String Quartet explored the connections between Beethoven and Bach on composers that came centuries in their wake. In this final edition, the quartet pairs Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet with a quartet by Anton Webern written before Arnold Schoenberg’s influence would take a strong hold. As such, the Webern link to Beethoven and Bach is clearer than the ones the Danish drew with Bela Bartok, Dmitri Shostakovich or Alfred Schnittke.
Vagaon, Sorry I Haven’t Called
If you liked Vagabon’s self-titled album , this album doesn’t disappoint. Lætitia Tamko occupies that nebulous space between pop and indie rock navigated by the likes of Solange, Jamila Woods and Sampha (the latter who also released albums in 2023.)
The Drums, Jonny
The singles preceding this album’s release were some of Jonathan Pierce’s catchiest, and the rest of the album is no slouch. Plus, the album cover is quite … honest. I like it.
Olivia Rodrigo, GUTS: I’m not the target audience for Rodrigo’s lyrics, but man she sure gives us olds that big rock sound.
NUMBER GIRL, Mujo no Hi: Yes, “Toumei Shoujou” shows up four times on this live set, and yes, each iteration sounds as vital as the one before it.
Troye Sivan, Something to Give Each Other: I like the cover of this album too.
Jamila Woods, Water Made Us: Did you like Legacy! Legacy!? This one is good too.
Queens of the Stone Age, In Times New Roman …: Recommended if you like … Like Clockwork.
OK, I confess: I started listening to Brian Fennell because he showed up in my social media feed, and thought, “Oh, he’s really cute.” So yes, there may be a halo effect to my becoming a stan. But Fennell has had a diverse career so far. As part of the trio Barcelona, he sang powerfully in front of a driving guitars. By the time he released the self-titled debut album as SYML, that rock vocabulary expanded to include electronics. SYML and Absolutes are the best of Fennell’s early works.
Soundtrack, Star Trek Voyager: The Caretaker
I’m ambivalent about Star Trek as a whole, but do not doubt my devotion to Star Trak: Voyager. Most of that fandom was driven by a crush on Garrett Wang, but I really liked how Voyager felt grittier than other series in the franchise. Jay Chattaway’s scores for the series did their job girding what was happening onscreen, so subconsciously, I perceived there were some avant-grade gestures going on. I didn’t realize the extent till this soundtrack laid it all bare. So much so, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme song feels anachronistic next to it.
Vagabon, Sorry I Haven’t Called
This album is the first of three I’m anticipating in 2023. The others are Water Made Us by Jamila Woods and LAHAI by Sampha. I don’t get the impression Vagabon strayed too far from what made her previous album appealing, and that’s fine with me.
Explosions in the Sky, End
Seven years have passed since the previous Explosions in the Sky album, and they too have made made drastic renovations to their sound, similar to labelmate Eluvium. End actually has some conventional song structures — shocker! — and electronics figure much more heavily this time around. The album starts of strong, but it does flag in the second half.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern (10th Anniversary Edition)
I could go on about how the the live and demo versions of this breakout album provides context and whatever else reviewers prattle on about, but I am a gay man who is not above listening to music performed by an attractive guy. And Isbell is a smoke show on the updated cover of Southeastern.
The Replacements, Tim: Let It Bleed Edition
Hey, you know the guy who produced Living Colour’s debut album Vivid? He updated the mix of the Replacements’ major label debut, and it sounds pretty damn good.
For the first time in a number of years, I’ve had an easier time compiling my favorite new albums than catalog discoveries. Last year, I noted that I’m not finding as many eye-openers at the thrift shops. This year seems to follow that trend. The first half of this list is solid, but the second half of the list could probably be negotiated.
easy life, Life’s a Beach
Kia car commercials seem to be a new avenue of music discovery for me. First, it was the hamsters and Black Sheep. Now it’s skeletons, and uh, “Skeletons”. I’m still on the fence about the band’s new album, but this debut is a keeper.
Black, Wonderful Life
Black has always existed on the periphery of my awareness, and I even felt a bit of sadness to hear of his passing back in 2016. But I wouldn’t fully understand just how good he was till I picked up Wonderful Life from the thrift shop. He didn’t have much of a profile in the States as in the UK, which is a pity.
Cave In, Antenna
This album got quite a bit of in-store play when I worked at Waterloo Records at the time of its release. I would eventually understand this album is quite the departure from the band’s usual metal outings.
Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!
I knew Devo mostly from “Whip It” and “Working in the Coal Mine”. Then I picked up Freedom of Choice and this album from the thrift shop and discovered they were far more angular than those hits hinted at.
Mieczslaw Weinberg, Violin Concerto / Sonata for Two Violins (Gidon Kremer, Danielle Gatti, Gewandhausorchester Liepzig)
Weinberg was a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, and it’s easy to hear the shared musical dialect between the two composers. But Weinberg isn’t Shostakovich Light. He has his own sense of lyricism and bite, which Gidon Kremer has done well to champion.
Paula Cole, This Fire
“I Don’t Wanna Wait” was so tied to the branding of the nascent WB Network that I didn’t really take Paula Cole seriously, despite loving her backing vocals on Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live. It turns out This Fire is a far more adventurous album than the hit single let on.
Radio stations in Honolulu only ever paid attention to “Toy Soldiers”, playing it to death. But the album got renewed attention when Eminem sampled it at the start of his career. It’s really a solid album that transcends its hit single.
Recommended if you like Kelela, Sampha, Solange and other such artists expanding the boundaries of R&B.
Kraftwerk, Techno Pop (a.k.a. Electric Cafe)
I mostly like this album because of Mike Myers’ iconic Sprockets skit on Saturday Night Live. But also, this Kraftwerk album seems the most tuneful.
Club Nisei, Japanese Music of Hawaii
This compilation of traditional Japanese music performed by the Club Nisei Orchestra got quite a bit of play on the in-store system at Waterloo Records. I wasn’t much into older Japanese music at the time, but I picked it up at a record show in Seattle mostly out of nostalgia. I understand now why it was so popular among my coworkers.